Of Pots and Men

Warren Mackenzie is my father-in-law. To most people, that means nothing. Just some dude. To those into crafts and pottery, however, Warren's the man.

And when I say the man, I mean it. Warren's a living legend. He has pots in the Smithsonian and the Met. He's big guns. Big pots.

The first time I visited him and Nancy, my husband's mother, back in 1998, I was so nervous I had crying fits in the upstairs bedroom. Then I drank too much at the dinner party--the Mondales were there, fer chrissakes, Walter and Joan Mondale!--and spent the next morning sick in bed. Okay, more than the next morning. It was an embarrassing episode I'd just as soon forget.

Point being, the whole scene was a little too heady for this working class gal from Jersey. Here were real-life artists, internationally recognized artists, whose home was filled with art. And I grew up thinking Hummels were the shit--and I'm not dissing on those adorable figurines. Just a point of contrast.

Over the years, I've stopped crying and over-drinking. Because it's not about me (gasp!). It's about them. Also Warren and Nancy are such warm and open humans, it's hard to be nervous around them. And I've learned a lot from them--about being an artist, absolutely, but also a good human being.

1. Work every day. Warren is a star at this. He's in his pottery every day because he's a potter. That's what he does. About five years ago he was diagnosed with silicosis, which is a lung disease caused by inhaling clay. It slowed him down at first. Not anymore. The dude is 86 and you can't even tell he has it.

2. But it's okay to take time off if family's in town. Work is important--no doubt. But people are too.

3. A drink or two in the evening never hurt anyone. My husband Mark and I visited over Christmas, so there were lots of parties. Did I mention Warren is 86? Did I mention he can drink me under the table? He even drank the curd-like, old and skanky Baileys. It was so thick it wasn't cream anymore. It was cheese. He and Mark also sat around one night and drank absinthe. One time I had a shot of that stuff and immediately got a headache.

4. Dessert never hurt anyone either. Especially chocolate ice cream.

5. Sit down and eat your meals together. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, if possible. Don't watch television or stand up at the sink. Put flowers on the table. Listen to your jaws pop.

6. When you're having a dinner party, get everything ready hours in advance. I learned this from Nancy. Do as much as you can--even set the table! It saves heartache. Also, no one really cares about the food. It's not a contest. They're there to be with you.

7. Trust that you have greatness inside of you. This is the big one. Warren is a utilitarian potter, meaning he makes a lot of pots, mostly for everyday use. Mark and I eat off his work daily. But with each firing Warren sets a few pieces aside for museums. The pots that sing. When asked how he creates those pots, he said he doesn't worry about it, because he doesn't set out to make a great pot, just one that's useful. He said to trust that there's something inside you, something simultaneously human and divine, that will come out in the work. When you find a pot that exhibits the ineffable, then you've made art. It's easy to pick the functional pots from the brilliant pots. The brilliant ones glow from within. And yes, I'll say it: Just like him.
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